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The Opposition in an effective democracy

Dr Neelesh Gounder
Saturday, May 28, 2016

AN effective democracy creates and enhances the public's faith in politics to change society and improve people's lives. Democracy through free and fair elections may unlock the potential but it needs politics to deliver. Thus both sides of the Parliament, Government and Opposition, are core for an effective democracy.

No one denies the challenges of being in parliamentary opposition in Fiji today. We face a government bearing some of the hallmarks of an 'elective dictatorship'. A Government that seems unfazed and bold to change parliamentary systems and processes as it sees fit.

Despite these legislature related issues, a lot (but not all) of the Government's strategies seem in sync with mainstream public attitude. Their policies look popular, and people see the Government as helping them. For most people budget deficits, growing national debt and local government elections may be second order relevance.

The temptation, of course, is whether this informs us anything about the 2018 general election. More importantly, however, from now until the election is the credibility of the Opposition to map out a strategy within these circumstances.

Opposition

Responsibility to foster a democracy of hope and politics of delivering to improve lives does not solely fall with the Government. The Opposition can play an equally important role. It can be argued that the Opposition is doing its best in the circumstances.

However, series of events within Fiji's largest opposition party SODELPA raises some questions about whether it is effectively doing this taking into account the constraints.

In September last year, FBC news claimed to be reliably informed that a new party leader for SODELPA is expected to be voted in by members in June 2016.

Three months later, SODELPA leader Ro Teimumu Kepa asked her party supporters to help redirect the party from "current secretive, divisive and destructive stance to a more credible, accountable and transparent party".

In the next breath, she criticised her party management board publicly for not expelling two MPs whom she accused of making damaging and false accusations against some party members.

SODELPA

SODELPA, as the major opposition party, needs to get its dynasty in order to create confidence.

It will have to expressively deal with the challenges of unifying with other opposition parties to scrutinise the Government. This is what the voters expect. Voters also expect the Opposition to offer alternatives to the policies and decisions proposed by the Government.

The clatter emerging out of SODELPA is making opposition side of politics muddier. Fiji is almost halfway to the next general election but SODELPA continues lining private laundry in the public with stains dating back to 2014.

Is SODELPA demoralised and directionless? Even if the answer is no, what was not expected was a route to self-destruction.

SODELPA has to realise that the political ground all parties are standing on is changing fast. That is the reality. It can no longer appeal to the 50 per cent of the voting population; which means it is effectively bidding for 25 seats only. Moving towards the centre ground to broaden its electoral appeal should be robustly deliberated.

So, what are the issues within SODELPA? Is it a crisis of leadership? Or is it a few disgruntled MPs? Perhaps the former is linked to the latter? If it is, then it needs more accountability and transparency with decision-making processes within the party. The sooner it awakens from its depressive stupor, the better it is for the Opposition and effective democracy.

What can SODELPA learn from NFP?

NFP has a history of a party which was once bitterly divided in the 1970s and since then they learnt the lesson that a divided party and lack of support for the leadership of the party can be detrimental. Since then the NFP learnt its lessons and has remained a united party.

The NFP with three members seems to be playing its role effectively with its concentration on real issues such as the economy, employment, poverty, rule of law, transparency, accountability and democracy. NFP together with SODELPA in the first six months seemed a very united alternative government.

While the majority of the members on both sides of Parliament are iTaukei, the presence of the NFP in the Opposition gives both side of Parliament a multiracial look. In Fiji politics, the perception is very important. It seems that SODELPA continues to give the non-indigenous population the perception of a party only concerned with indigenous issues even though SODELPA has raised many issues of national importance and those directly affecting the non-indigenous population. This plays directly into the hands of the FijiFirst government where they accuse SODLEPA of being racists but they also have been trying to lump NFP with them as well.

They know this goes down well with the non-indigenous voters — majority of whom supported them in the last election. They also use SODELPA to deflect debate on many pressing national issues.

The leader of the Opposition Ro Temumu Kepa's initial decision to appoint the NFP leader Professor Biman Prasad chair of the Public Accounts Committee and Shadow Minister of Finance was wise and an excellent decision for two reasons.

One she demonstrated that appointments to shadow portfolio were based on qualification and talents.

Second she demonstrated contrary to the claim by the FijiFirst party that SODELPA was not a racist party.

The NFP may ultimately have to chart its own path to 2018 General Election if SODELPA leadership does not come out openly as a united and centrist party.

In fact NFP in the past election was the most multiracial party with many credible iTaukei candidates including party president, Roko Tupou Draunidalo. It is likely that NFP will attract some of the more formidable, experienced and educated iTaukei and could present itself as the most formidable, multiracial and forward looking party in the 2018 general election.

Additional remarks

In a crowded field without any constituency, not only leader personalities but party personalities will stand out open in the 2018 General Election.

The Opposition should not focus its current strategy only on public opinion based on policy as it indicates where public opinion is at the present time. It does not necessarily mean personalities are more important than policies. Instead public opinion should inform future strategy.

The FijiFirst party majority to take the Government lies in 10 per cent or 6 out of every 10 voters. This is not extraordinary in itself. Then the design of the Constitution helps to get few more seats to the party with the highest votes.

The future is never certain. This uncertainty should provide faith for other parties; nothing lasts forever.

These are the views of Dr Neelesh Gounder, and not of The Fiji Times or of USP where he is employed. He tweets at @GounderNeelesh








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